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2 May, 2024 07:56

Silence of the Separatists: Kashmir wakes from political hibernation with calls for boycotting elections a thing of the past

While the Indian PM campaigns on bringing an air of freedom to the violence-hit valley, an ex-chief minister in opposition is canvassing voters on ending injustice
Silence of the Separatists: Kashmir wakes from political hibernation with calls for boycotting elections a thing of the past

After nearly five years of political quiet, the air in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) is once again filled with the hum of loudspeakers and the clamor of vehicles, as politicians travel from towns to villages to hamlets, seeking votes in India’s ongoing Lok Sabha (lower house of parliament) elections.

J&K used to be a state comprising three distinct regions: the Valley of Kashmir, ringed by the Pir Panjal mountains, the plains of Jammu, and the mountainous Ladakh region. Since 1988, the Valley has witnessed an armed separatist movement.

Things changed on August 5, 2019: the Constitution of India was changed, hollowing out Article 370, which gave special rights to the state’s citizens. Ladakh was separated and made into a Union Territory (i.e., ruled directly from Delhi instead of by local representatives), as was the new J&K. The federal government promised local assembly elections, but they have not yet happened.

There are five parliamentary constituencies in J&K, and one in Ladakh. Of the five, three are in the Muslim-majority Kashmir Valley, and two in the Hindu-dominated Udhampur and Jammu constituencies; these two have already taken place. 


The Valley’s three seats are mostly a battle between the J&K National Conference (NC) and the J&K People’s Democratic Party (PDP), even though both are formally part of the Opposition I.N.D.I.A. bloc. Former J&K Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah explains this to voters by saying that their common opponent is the BJP.

Two other former chief ministers are in the fray: Omar Abdullah (NC) is contesting in northern Kashmir’s Baramulla, which votes on May 20, and Mehbooba Mufti (PDP) is contesting from southern Kashmir’s Anantnag-Rajouri on May 25 – it was originally scheduled for May 7 but postponed by the Election Commission of India (ECI) due to “logistical issues” arising from weather conditions. 

Last Chief Minister of J&K

This reporter followed Mehbooba Mufti, 64, the last chief minister of J&K, while she was on the campaign trail. She is accompanied by daughter Iltija in canvassing voters in Shopian district, once a hotbed of armed militancy. She stands atop a vehicle in a flowing green outfit and passionately appeals to gathered locals, invoking threats to their identity.

“We have been suffocated,” she says, her political rhetoric in a high-pitched tone.


“PDP and NC must thank Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah, who pulled Kashmir out of the mess and provided the air of freedom to people of all shades to breathe in a peaceful atmosphere,” counters Altaf Thakur, the local spokesperson for the nationally-ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Mehbooba’s constituency was earlier just the Anantnag region of southern Kashmir. A delimitation commission set up by New Delhi merged it with the geographically distinct region Rajouri in the hills leading down to Jammu. Incidentally, the BJP has not fielded a candidate from here, though it repeatedly asserts that PM Modi has brought a peaceful atmosphere to Kashmir.

One of the issues that Mehbooba raises is the unfulfilled promise of an assembly election in J&K, last held in 2014.

“I don’t know whether (assembly) elections will ever happen here or not,” Mehbooba tells supporters. “So this is a significant election,” she says, urging them to show up in large numbers on voting day. 

“You have to send a person to parliament who won’t only talk about roads and electricity but about the injustice we have gone through in the last five years,” she adds. “If we don’t come out to vote now, we will lose everything.” 


Family matters

Much of Mehbooba’s stump speech that she repeats at every stop deals with the “thousands of families” whose young men are lodged in different jails around the country; she mentions how the families are so poor they can’t afford to visit their boys.

Her supporters respond with a cheer and a slogan in Kashmiri: “Yeli yi Mufti Teli Tchali Sakhti” (When Mufti comes our hardships will end).

Her daughter Iltija, 35, is a new face in the party. She was running Mehbooba’s social media accounts in August 2019, after her mother, like other political leaders and workers, were confined to their homes without means of communication. Four years later, Iltija was formally appointed media advisor.

Iltija claimed that her mother is the only voice speaking up on tough subjects in Kashmir after 2019. (Mehbooba’s main opponent is the NC’s tribal leader, Mian Altaf.)

“I think people expect representatives who will take their voice to the floor of parliament. They see a glimmer of hope in Mehbooba Mufti,” Iltija tells RT, adding that they have to fight and move on.


Modi says Kashmiris are his family

PM Modi visited Kashmir on March 7 and addressed people in the main city of Srinagar, calling Kashmiris his family and saying that he cares about his brothers and sisters. He also announced development projects worth over $700 million.

“Kashmir is touching new heights of progress and prosperity after the abrogation of Article 370,” he said, hailing his decision as a major achievement. However, he made no mention of holding an assembly election.

In his appeal to Kashmiri voters, Modi asked them to vote against the Congress and its regional allies, the NC and PDP, whom he and Shah repeatedly call ‘dynastic parties’.

The BJP for years has aimed to make inroads in Kashmir, but it has historically struggled to gain local support. It has not fielded candidates in any of the three Kashmir seats.


The NC, which ruled J&K for most of the last seven decades, has in campaign speeches accused smaller opponents of secretly aligning with the BJP. These include the Apni (One’s Own) Party, the Democratic Progressive Azad (Freedom) Party and the People’s Conference.

It is these parties that asked the ECI to postpone voting day due to bad weather conditions that led to a blockage of the mountain pass that links Anantnag to Rajouri. Omar Abdullah warned against the postponement last week, and now both the NC and PDP are angry with the decision, with Mehbooba saying the move was aimed at preventing her from winning and aiding “proxies” in the Valley.

Kashmir’s capital needs political capital

In Srinagar, which votes on May 16, residents say that voters need to come out to vote to express their unhappiness with the measures taken in the last four years.

“Everyone is depressed,” Shahid Ahmad, 35, a shopkeeper, tells RT. He points out that they do not have a representative. “Even if there is a road, electricity or water problem, we do not have a political leader to approach.”

For many decades, large parts of Srinagar witnessed a lower turnout of voters due to calls by separatists to boycott the polls. After a crackdown on separatist outfits, now banned as terrorist organizations, there has been no more calls to boycott.


“The issues about the people of Kashmir are common as of now, due to decisions taken by New Delhi,” says Aga Syed Ruhulla Mehdi, NC’s Srinagar candidate. “People should realize their duty and respond in a united way.”

Zaffar Choudhary, a local political analyst, told RT that mainstream politics in J&K has always been traditionally split along some regional and communal fault lines.

“BJP is only contesting the two Jammu Lok Sabha (lower house) seats where they have a good support base,” Choudhary points out. “Amit Shah said in a recent interview that the BJP doesn’t have a base in the Kashmir seats and is not eager to contest.”

He adds that this election is shaping up as a significant political verdict and that the results are expected to be mixed. Although this is the first election in J&K after the August 2019 Constitutional change, it won’t be a referendum on the change.

“It won’t be an absolute disapproval or approval,” Choudhary feels. “The political landscape is deeply split and a one-sided verdict is unlikely.”